Politics & Policy

Race-Card Arlen

For Specter, politics trumps the Constitution on race.

Ramesh Ponnuru noted on “The Corner” Monday that Arlen Specter is bad not just on Roe v. Wade, but on another hot-button judicial issue, namely racial preferences. Ramesh points out that Specter wanted the Bush administration to defend racial preferences in university admissions, which is troubling enough, and when Bush declined to do so before the Supreme Court, Specter threatened to push back. “We are assertive when we think the circumstances warrant it, and I think this issue does,” Specter said. “There are things we can do about it in the Senate. When Supreme Court nominees come up, you can bet I’ll be on this point.” In other words, Specter is on record as saying that he will do what he can to make sure that justices–and, presumably, judges–who believe in colorblind law are not confirmed.

That’s enough to disqualify him from heading the Senate Judiciary Committee, even if he had said nothing else on that subject, and even if he had said nothing on Roe v. Wade. And, of course, he has threatened the president’s nominees on the abortion issue, and he has also has a lengthy and bad record on racial preferences. Indeed, his recent threat to the president on the issue of preferences is no surprise to anyone familiar with Senator Specter’s record.

In 1997, for instance, Specter was the only Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee to vote in favor of confirming the pro-preference Bill Lann Lee to head the Justice Department’s civil-rights division under President Clinton. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings on Lee were high profile and emotional, and the vote boiled down to whether the nation’s principal law-enforcement arm for civil rights should be run by someone who did not believe that the civil rights laws should or do protect all Americans equally. Every Republican voted against Lee, except Specter, and as a result Lee’s nomination was blocked but not actually rejected. Clinton seized this fig leaf to put Lee in place on an “acting” basis instead, and eventually gave him a recess appointment. Lee turned out to be just as bad as the Republicans had feared; it’s unlikely that he would have been put in place had Specter voted with the rest of his party colleagues to send Lee packing.

Conversely, under a Republican president in 1985, Specter played a decisive role in defeating the nomination of an anti-preference stalwart. Ronald Reagan wanted to promote William Bradford Reynolds to the number-three slot at the Justice Department, but the nomination was controversial because of Reynolds’s high-profile opposition to racial preferences. Here, too, Specter broke ranks with his Republican colleagues on the Judiciary Committee, and as a result Reynolds never made it to the Senate floor.

Specter also voted against Senator Mitch McConnell’s 1998 amendment to the federal highway bill to strip preferences out of this legislation. Republicans voted overwhelmingly (36-15) in favor of this legislation, but not Specter. The vote here is all the more remarkable because the McConnell amendment sought to remove the same provision that the Supreme Court had ruled only three years earlier was constitutionally suspect. But, for Specter, politics trumped the Constitution.

Is that last sentence an exaggeration? I don’t think so. Perhaps most disturbing of all in Specter’s record is his justification for his vote in favor of the pro-preference Bill Lann Lee. According to the Washington Post, “Specter said a Republican decision to defeat Lee ‘will make it harder to elect a Republican president in the year 2000′ because the party will have difficulty appealing to minority groups and women.”

Now, Specter’s statement is not true as a political matter. Bush was elected in 2000 despite the Republican vote on Lee, and he was reelected in 2004 despite his administration’s opposition to affirmative action in his first term (tepid opposition, to be sure, but that certainly was not the Democrats’ characterization of it). The fact of the matter is that most Americans, of all races and ethnicities, oppose preferences–and they are certainly opposed by anyone who would even consider voting for a Republican, even a RINO like Arlen Specter.

But let suppose it were true as a political matter that minorities and women strongly favor preferential treatment for some and not others on the basis of skin color and sex. It is nonetheless quite disturbing that someone who now wants to be head of the Senate Judiciary Committee would counsel his party to reject the principle of nondiscrimination because it might create some political bumps in the road.

In sum, Arlen Specter’s voting record and public statements demonstrate that, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he will do his best to make it hard to confirm judges that he and his Democratic allies believe are committed to principles of colorblind justice. That’s enough to disqualify him for the chairmanship.

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